Biblical Exegesis: Nicodemus’ Mistake


“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him: Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him” (John 3:1-2).

The phrase “A ruler of the Jews” indicates that Nicodemus symbolized an àrchön, which is the exact word used in the Greek original. An àrchön is the Gnostic technical term for any power or agent of the Demiurge, to whom John 12:31 refers with the words: ho àrchön toû kòsmou toùtou, “the ruler of this world”, whose agents, in Paul’s words, are hoi àrchontes toû aiônos toùtou (“the rulers of this aeon” – the kòsmos) of 1 Corinthians. 2: 6, 8 (there in the genitive). Therefore also Nicodemus’ name may be significant, for Nikòdëmos means “conqueror of the people”, and the Demiurge is the one who “conquers” people and keeps them in slavery through the power of his heimarmènë, the Fate (karma). This means of slavery is called the “counterfeit spirit” in the Apocryphon of John.

The Jewish Pharisees, in John’s Gospel, symbolize the hylic class of human beings. The Law of Moses according to Paul also symbolized the flesh and was thus crucified on the Cross. The Gospel of John attaches fundamental importance to the cross and through it Christ throws down the Prince of the world. It is the cross that for Paul and John, it must be looked upon in order to be saved, just as the bronze serpent was looked at.

The Demiurge rules within the shadows, and therefore moves in the darkness. Not by chance then Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night”. It is an apt description of Nicodemus’ life and all those who live within the cave of matter. Man is a prisoner of this cave, or the box of time-space continuum. Now how can any demiurgic power, or any man under the demiurgic rulership, understand the nature of what shines beyond its sphere?

First of all, such power or man cannot but reason in terms of heimarmènë, of cause and effect, ignoring that space and time do not exist beyond his world of cause and effect. He believes that he can recognize a divine incarnation (an Avatara) from the “signs” He does. He thinks he can measure the divine dimension as he would the ability and the cleverness of a juggler. Jesus does not waste his time in explaining him the difference. He just points at Nicodemus’ blindness (because of the darkness he moves in) and at the condition necessary to overcome it:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born ànöthen, he cannot see the Kingdom of God”(3:3).

Anöthen means both “anew” and “from above”. Naturally Nicodemus understands it in terms of time (“anew”) and of “reincarnation” which indicates his carnal thinking:

“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”.

Nicodemus is one of those who believe that one can reach the infinite by adding step to step, or that eternity is an infinite summation of days. He believes that finally his heimarmènë will produce the uncaused. Now Jesus tries to open Nicodemus’ eyes:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”

(The words “of the water and” are missing in many ancient manuscripts). And Jesus explains the difference between the heimarmènë-bound world of matter and that of Spirit’s freedom:

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you: You must be born (ànöthen). The spirit (Pneuma) blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes”.

And finally He makes it clear what ànöthen really means:

“No one has ascended to heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man (the Anthröpos) (ho hyiòs toû anthròpou)”.

Here “the son of the Anthropos” is the Pneumatic (spiritual) element in man. Anöthen means a vertical movement intervening in the horizontal chain of cause and effect in time and space, which is the schêma, the latter being unable to stop itself. The laws of cause and effect are also very much a big concern in later Hermetic texts. Although this scene is not mentioned in Heracleon’s (a Valentinian teacher) fragments as preserved by Origen, he does give some interesting insights into another scene that is somewhat reminiscent of the scene with Nicodemus. Here is one example taken from these fragments:

Fragment 20, on John 4:21 (In John it says, “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.’”) The mountain represents the Devil, or his world, since the Devil was one part of the whole of matter, but the world is the total mountain of evil, a deserted dwelling place of beasts, to which all who lived before the law and all Gentiles render worship. But Jerusalem represents the creation or the Creator whom the Jews worship. . . The mountain is the creation which the Gentiles worship, but Jerusalem is the creator whom the Jews serve. You then who are spiritual should worship neither the creation nor the Craftsman (Demiurge – my emphasis), but the Father of Truth. And he (Jesus) accepts her (the Samaritan woman) as one of the already faithful, and to be counted with those who worship in truth.

As we can see, allegory was a common teaching tool that many early Christians and Gnostics were engaged in. Even Hellenistic Jews like Philo Judeaus of Alexandria was heavily invested in this allegorical methodology but applied to the Old Testament. Another example of this can be seen in the Valentinian teacher Theodutus’ fragments as preserved by Clement of Alexandria:

XXIV. For we are of the earth. . . . Caesar is the prince, for the thee being, whose earthly image is the old man, to which he has returned. To him, then, we are to render the earthly things, which we bore in the image of the earthly, and the things of God to God. For each one of the passions is on us as a letter, and stamp, and sign. Now the Lord marks us with another stamp, and with other names and letters, faith instead of unbelief, and so forth. Thus we are translated from what is material to what is spiritual, “having borne the image of the heavenly.” [2]

Stay tuned for more small posts like these in the tradition of the Biblical Exegesis.

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